Parenting, as any mom or dad knows, is full of questions. And for many parents, when a child announces that he or she has decided to stop eating meat, the concerns — from now what do I make for dinner to how do I know he’s getting the right nutrients to is she rejecting the way I eat — can feel overwhelming.
Here are the six most important queries you should ask your child if he or she has decided to become a vegetarian.
Why are you giving up meat?
It’s a simple enough question, but many parents get so caught up in what to feed their child that they forget to ask about the motivation behind such a huge decision. Getting your child to share their reasoning gives you the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions your child may have about a vegetarian diet. Some kids may see going veg as an easy way to get healthy or lose weight — teens who were or had ever been vegetarians were more likely to engage in extreme unhealthy weight-control behaviors, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. A vegetarian diet can be unhealthy just as an omnivorous one can, and many a young veg head has survived on a diet primarily of peanut butter cups, french fries and pizza.
Asking about your child’s motivation also gives you the opportunity to learn more about your son or daughter and the person they are growing into. Perhaps she saw images of factory farms on the news and wants to protest inhumane conditions. Maybe he heard a quote that inspired the change. Inquiring why will help you engage your child in a valuable and important conversation.
What type of vegetarian do you want to be?
These days, people use the term “vegetarian” to mean any number of things: No meat, no dairy, some fish, even a little chicken to some who decide to use the label. Before your child sets forth on his or her path to veg, make sure you understand what his or her intentions are. A vegan (someone who eats no animal products whatsoever — meat, dairy, eggs and even honey) has very different nutritional needs than a lacto-ovo vegetarian (who eats no meat, but does eat eggs and dairy. Make sure you and your child are speaking the same language when it comes to his or her desired goals.
What can we add to your diet?
Subtracting meat is only one component of going veg in the healthiest way possible. Nutrition addition—in other words, taking special care to include items that contain nutrients like protein and iron—is also crucial. Ask your child to think about what protein-rich foods he or she can eat in place of meat. Foods like beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, yogurt, eggs and even protein-containing grains like quinoa are all good options. If your child plans to go vegan, you’ll also want to make sure they’re adding in good sources of zinc, vitamin B12 and calcium.
Then ask yourself:
What are my fears?
Many parents react harshly when a child announces they would like to give up meat. Perhaps, I don’t think so is your knee jerk reaction. But have you considered why? Maybe you’re concerned that your child couldn’t possibly be getting the right nutrients. Perhaps you’re fearful that having a family full of different preferences will turn you into a short-order cook at dinner time. Maybe you once knew a vegetarian who you really didn’t like. Whatever the reason, take some time to explore your feelings and address them as appropriate rather than letting it become a source of tension between you and your child. If your concern is nutrition, it may be a good opportunity to talk to a registered dietitian or to pick up a book on the topic. If you’re worried about not knowing what to cook to please everyone, ask for your kids to brainstorm meals they will all be willing to eat. Once you’ve identified the concern, you’ll be better able to reach a solution.
How can I support my child?
For many kids who experiment with vegetarianism, it’s the beginning of a life-long way of eating. For others, it’s a temporary phase. Regardless of what it is for your child, the way you handle your child’s exploration can have a huge impact on your relationship. Parent vs. child battles over food are often about control and independence. If you want to be the kind of parent who respects your child’s opinions and preferences, think about ways that you can prove that to him or her. This doesn’t mean becoming your child’s personal chef—helping him or her learn to fend for his or herself is equally important. You can bring your daughter to the grocery store so she can pick out veggie burgers she’d like to eat when it’s barbecue night. If your child has trouble finding veg-friendly lunches at school, offer to send him with meat-free brown bag lunches. Vegetarianism may not stick for your child, but your sympathetic gestures will be something he or she remembers for a long time.
What foods can I make the whole family?
But really, you’re thinking—what am I going to make for dinner? There are loads of resources for delicious vegetarian meals, thanks in part to the Meatless Monday movement (it’s exactly what it sounds like—a movement to get people eating vegetarian one day a week). Google Meatless Monday and you’ll find loads of blogs, articles, Pinterest boards and more devoted to vegetarian meals your whole family will love. If the meat-eating members of your family aren’t going to be happy without some beef or chicken on their plate, think about protein pop-ins — meals that can easily be customized to the various members of your family’s needs. If your crew likes chicken tacos, prepare peppers and onions separate from the meat so your veg head can pop in a side of black beans instead. Spaghetti and meatballs night? Before you mix it all up, set aside some pasta for your vegetarian and add in a couple of meatless meatballs you’ve pulled from the freezer and heated in the microwave. Voilà — dinner is served.
Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RDN is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator, and counselor, and author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian.